Armchair Oscars – 1976

Best Picture

Rocky (Directed by John G. Avildsen)
The Nominees: All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
My Nominees: 
All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula), The Front (Hal Ashby), Carrie (Brian de Palma), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood), Rocky (John G. Avildsen)


In the year of America’s Bicentennial, everyone, even academy voters, wanted something to feel good about.  Rocky was the movie they were looking for. Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in this unpolished character study – reportedly based on real-life pugilist Chuck Wepner who went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali – about pursuits of Rocky Balboa, a down-on-his luck club fighter/debt collector who wants nothing more than to prove himself by getting a shot at the heavyweight boxing title.

The movie is gritty, with the kinds of intricate character details that we usually associate with a great novel.  The story of Rocky’s struggle for his million-to-one shot mirrored the personal story of Stallone who fought just as hard to get this movie made.

He shopped his script around Hollywood for years but couldn’t drum up any interest until he was given his chance by United Artists. The payoff was an enormous success at the box office and a film that today remains a crowd-pleasing favorite.  It was also a breakthrough for Sylvester Stallone who would spend the next 15 years as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars (he would play Rocky five more times) before a string of box office failures turned his name into a punchline.  Today, Stallone’s movie career seems to be made up of attempts to breathe life back into his career.

As for the movie, it would unfortunately breed a string of progressively worsening sequels (and worse imitators) before Stallone redeemed the series by returning to finalize it in 2006 with the beautifully made Rocky Balboa and then again with 2015’s Creed.  The last film proved something I have felt all along, that first film was so specific, so vivid and so full of intricate details that we remember, that it meant something when we returned to them 30 years later. My favorite film of 1976 is not a film you would want to return to with a 30 year follow-up but it is a film that never seems dated.  Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is not a pretty picture.  It focuses on several days and nights in the life of a man whose mind burns over the evil and the heartless America he sees out of the window of his Taxicab.

Like a warrior wandering into an evil wasteland, Travis Bickle moves his cab through the dangerous streets of New York City. He can’t sleep at night and decides that since he is awake every night, he might as well get paid for it. He observes, mostly at a distance, the behavior patterns of prostitutes, drug dealers and junkies and people who contribute to the decay of their own society.  “All the animals come out at night”, he tells us in narration, “whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

He watches this world from a distance and Taxi Driver is really about his alienation, about how he tries and fails many times to connect.  He has no social graces, no social interactions and his attempt to speak to other people often scares them away.  An attempted conversation with his boss (Peter Boyle) goes nowhere.  He takes a lady friend (Cybil Shepard) on a date to a porn film and when she is offended he explains “I see lots of couples going to this”.  He tries to be friendly to a political candidate but only draws paranoia from the man’s security.

The best moments in Taxi Driver are the quiet ones, the scenes where he simply observes, where he moves effortlessly in the safety of his vessel.  I love the shots of that lonely yellow cab wandering through the streets with the steam rising from the manhole covers, as if this place had fallen into a darkened pit just one level up from Hell itself. There are moments when Travis runs across people who definitively fit his perspective on the world, such as an encounter with an angry passenger (Scorsese) who informs this driver that he is, in no uncertain terms, going to shoot and kill his wife and her lover.

Travis instinctively knows that he can’t wipe all the scum off the streets but he sets about to rob this ugly landscape of two of it’s victims. First is Betsy, who works on the campaign of a politician named Palatine that Travis thinks is dirty. The other is Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12 year-old prostitute who ran away from home and works for a pimp named Sport (Harvey Keitel). He makes it his mission to kill one or both of these men.

Attempting to save both women doesn’t work because his approach to them is the same as his approach to everyone else, they reject him and something off-putting in his personality makes them instinctively shy away from him. That may have to do with the fact that neither Iris nor Betsy want his help. Eventually, he arrives at a point mentally where he prepares himself for battle. Buying guns, working out, and of course practicing in the mirror to an imaginary assailant. “You talkin’ to me? Well I’m the only one here.” That second line speaks for his entire nature. He goes on a rampage, shooting pimps and perverts that keep Iris locked in her nightly pursuits and afterwards he is deemed a hero in the press.

Yet even in the end when he is accepted (some assume that it is all a fantasy in his comatose brain) by those closest to the young girl he saved. It is a redemption, but only a temporary one. We are given a note at the end that reveals that this man is a time bomb who will keep going off. He smiles at the end but we sense that this scenario is starting all over again. This is the portrait of a lonely soul, a man who simply doesn’t possess the tools to be able to communicate effectively with other human beings. It gives him an unhealthy outlook. He says it best: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”

Best Actor

Peter Finch (
The Nominees: Robert DeNiro (Taxi Driver), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)

Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver
My Nominees:
Woody Allen (The Front), Clint Eastwood (The Outlaw Josey Whales), Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky), John Wayne (The Shootist)


I’m not alone in the opinion that Sylvester Stallone might have won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Rocky had Peter Finch not died of a heart attack on the morning of January 14, 1977 right before appearing on Good Morning, America.  Finch was there to promote his performance in Sydney Lumet’s Network, hoping to get an Oscar nomination.  Ultimately, it would work in his favor.  He would become the only non-American actor of the decade to win the award and would become the first and only Best Actor winner to be honored posthumously.

Finch was a good actor who spent nearly 40 years on screen and always seemed more interested in his craft than in his paycheck.  In Network he plays Howard Beale, a once-great news anchorman who snaps one day and announces that he is going to kill himself on the air.  Instead of being removed, he becomes a rabble-rouser, a profit of the airwaves who simply tells the truth to an audience who make him a ratings superstar.

His place in popular culture will live forever in the image of Howard Beale, sitting behind a newsdesk soaking wet and urging his viewers to stick their heads out the window and yell “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”  Sadly, everything else about Finch has more or less passed out of common knowledge. Admittedly, I’ve often mistaken him for Albert Finney.

I liked his performance in Network, there is something infectious about Howard Beale and his philosophy but, truthfully, he would have been better suited for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  He doesn’t have a great deal of screentime and most of the movie is only about him.  If I ever give Armchair Oscars for supporting performances, he will be my choice.

Having to contend against Stallone and Peter Finch for Best Actor, Robert De Niro, had no chance to win despite the fact that he gave his single greatest performance in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.  This was a movie that created a great division among critics and filmgoers and still wears that stigma even today.  In Scorsese’s bizarre, bloody and unsettling re-imagining John Ford’s The Searchers, De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a lonely cab driver who wanders the streets of New York in his yellow cab, watching the devolution of the American streets that are now taken over by crime, and urban decay.

He is a Vietnam vet, a former marine who suffers from insomnia and stomach problems.  He asks to work the night shift and takes his lonely cab into the worst, most dangerous sections of New York.  There he watches the “scum“ who roam the streets, the night dwellers and comments in an inner monologue that he will later put into his journal.

He exists in his society but not of it.  He’s a lonely man who makes frequent attempts to connect on a human level but almost always fails.  Human behavior is viewed at a distance and often through his dirty windshield.  Of normal human behavior, he knows the notes but not the music.  Travis reminds me a pre-teen boy who observes the world but hasn’t fully developed his own singular behavior.  His understanding of social graces is borrowed from what he sees and what he hears as in a scene in which he takes a girl to a porn film because “I see lots of couples who come in here”.

In Vietnam he saw the worst degradation of humankind and has returned home to see that things aren’t much better.  He becomes focused on the redemption of two women in particular.  One is a Betsy (Cybil Shepard), a pretty blonde who is working for a political candidate who he thinks is corrupt (the man has been a passenger in his cab).  The other is Iris, a twelve year-old runaway who has become a prostitute.  Both of these women are under the thumb of a man, Betsy is under the thumb of Palatine while Iris has a pimp named Sport who sees her as property.  Eventually, Travis will have designs on killing both of these men.

Time and again he tries to understand human contact and time and again he fails.  As his story progresses and he sees that connecting with his world doesn’t work, he goes over the edge.  The dividing line of his sanity comes in a brilliant scene in which he is watching coverage of a political rally on television and is rocking the TV stand with his foot.  Further and further he tips the TV stand until finally, the table tips over and the TV crashes to the floor.  It is a signal to us that the film is going to another level.

He buys a gun and begins practicing his quick draw.  He builds a strange device that will allow him to conceal a pistol in his sleeve.  He begins a hard-working regiment of physical fitness and even tests his endurance by holding his wrist over the flame on the gas stove.  And of course, he practices his approach, talking to a mirror at a pretend victim he says “Are you talking to me?  Well I’m the only one here”.  The second line is the most telling.

He walks into a convenience store and shoots a robber in the head but is allowed to escape thanks to the grateful store owner.  He schemes to assassinate Palatine but he loses his opportunity when he spooks a member of security.  That opportunity wasted, he goes gunning for Sport.  In a bloody shoot-out that somehow got the film only an R rating, kills Sport and several other men.  Iris is sent back to her family and a wounded Travis lies in the hospital, hailed as a hero.

No one really understands Travis Bickle, no one really understands what goes on in his ticking mind. That is one of the reasons that he is hailed as a hero in the end. He is seen as a man who saw a problem and dealt with it, but no one really understands that this is man who’s mind is a pressure cooker. In the end, there is a moment when he drives away from Betsy, he looks in his rear view mirror and thinks there is something there. The time bomb is ticking again.

Best Actress

Faye Dunaway (Network)
The Nominees: Marie-Christine Barrault (Cousin Cousine), Talia Shire (Rocky), Sissy Spacek (Carrie), Liv Ullman (Face to Face)

Sissy Spacek (Carrie)
y Nominees: Liv Ullman (Face to Face)


I’ll be honest, I never really got Faye Dunaway. As an actress she just seemed to occupy her roles but she never seemed to want to be there. She came to prominence as a figurehead of the New Hollywood, made herself a star in Bonnie and Clyde, then won an Oscar for her work in Network and saw her career go down in flames with Mommie Dearest.  No doubt, she starred in some great films but personally she always left me cold.  She was an actress that I felt I never wanted to spend any time with.

In the midst of the women’s movement Dunaway won an Oscar for playing headstrong career woman Diane Christensen, a TV news anchor who fights to keep the radical demagogue Howard Beale on the air. Her main quirk is that she can’t seem to leave her job at the office even when she’s having sex. Other than that, she isn’t that compelling as a character. I like the film but, for me, Faye Dunaway didn’t deserve an Oscar because her character isn’t any deeper or more compelling than Mary Tyler’s Moore’s associate producer Mary Richards on “The Mary Tyler’s Moore Show”.

If Dunaway doesn’t do it for me as an actress, I can say the opposite about Sissy Spacek who in 1976 had her breakout role in Brian De Palma’s Carrie, the role that would make her a star. This is one of those eerie meshings of reality and fantasy, like The Exorcist, wherein it grounds its story in a reality so that when the spooky stuff starts to happen, it is a little more jolting.

Spacek plays Carrie White, a painfully shy high school teenager who resides at the very bottom of the social ladder.  She is moppish, bony and underdeveloped, hiding her face behind her books and a curtain of stringy, unkempt hair.  She has no friends and is often the target of bullying at the hands of the other girls.

At home we understand her social isolation. Her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) is a clinging and unyielding, hiding her sexual frustration behind a lot of religious paranoia where she instills in her daughter the information that the world is evil and God’s tolerance is a walk on a tightrope – one wrong move and you’ll be cast into the fires of Hell.

For Carrie’s transgressions, Margaret issues punishment by locking her in “the prayer closet” surrounded by gruesome religious symbols. She instills all fear of burning in Hell but gives her no information, no real mental tools to deal with the outside world. Carrie is flowering into womanhood and her mother constantly reminds her that her very nature makes her the vessel of the devil. She isn’t allowed any friends and dating a boy is out of the question. Closing off the house from everyone else and making their home into a panic room, she refuses Carrie any of the useful information that she needs to carry on into adulthood. The movie opens with Carrie taking a shower after gym class when she suddenly menstruates for the first time. Not understanding what has happened, she sees all the blood and begins to panic, making her a target of the other girls.

Carrie’s life is, to say that least, a series of inner turmoil and abuse. But added to that pedigree, she also has to get a handle on the idea that she may have telekinesis – the ability to move objects with her mind. She sees things happen, like a mirror that breaks and then repairs itself. An ashtray flies off the principal’s desk when she mispronounces her name (He calls her Kassie). Telekinesis becomes the best weapon against her mother as she throws her mother against the couch during on of their fights without even touching her.

A teacher, Miss Collins, takes pity on Carrie and when the girls in her gym class abuse her, she punishes the girls. One of the girls, Sue Snell feels sorry for her and gets her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom but Chris (Nancy Allen), one of the girls who was punished, wants revenge. She and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) fix it so that Carrie will be crowned prom queen and they can dump pig blood all over her. The prank works but it turns ugly as Carrie, onstage uses her mind to lock the door and set on a huge electrical fire that kills nearly everyone. Returning home, she gets into a battle with her mother (who correctly warned her that “They’re all gonna laugh at you”) and they’re battle ends with both dead.

What works in Carrie is that it presents the elements of a fairly standard high school melodrama, then around the edges it creates a sad horror scenario about a girl with a strange, deadly power. The two stories run parallel throughout the film and only really meet at the end. That’s what makes great horror, the idea of a realistic playing field onto which is thrown an impossible situation. For Sissy Spacek, this would be her breakthrough role, she would continue over the next two decades to prove herself as an actress and we are happy to see that the promise she showed here was not a one-time thing.

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